There’s a feeling of disintegration in the United States. Partisanship has reached extraordinary levels. Since the early 1990s, the number of Democrats and Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party has more than doubled to well above 50 percent. Americans routinely see each other—not Russia, or China—as their country’s gravest enemy. In 2018, a plurality of Democrats said that the world leader who posed “the greatest threat to peace and security” to the U.S. was Donald Trump. In January 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election—or as they apparently saw it, to restore the election after its “theft.” Even in mainstream media, there’s recurring talk of cataclysmic unrest or civil war. Why are U.S. national bonds so frayed, even possibly broken?
There are many popular answers to this question—from the post-industrial decay and fast-changing cultural demographics that provoked disaffected whites and others to support Trump to the emergence of ideological news channels and social-media platforms that have effectively herded Americans into partisan tribes, to toxic political leadership that manipulates people into considering demonstrable facts as “fake news.” There’s another explanation, however, which has gone almost entirely ignored. It was predicted a generation ago—long before Trump’s election or Facebook—by a Soviet diplomat named Georgi Arbatov.
Arbatov was born in Kherson in the Soviet Union in 1923. His father was a Jewish metalworker and Communist true believer, who traveled abroad as a Soviet trade representative. Arbatov had an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing in Berlin and Paris, a world away from the famine and terror of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. In 1938, his father was accused of sabotage and jailed, revealing to Arbatov both the savagery of Stalinism and the cost of bucking its system. “Even by the age of fourteen or fifteen,” Arbatov wrote, “I understood perfectly well that the authorities arrested and destroyed completely innocent people.”
He worked his way up through the Soviet bureaucracy, becoming the country’s top “Amerikanist,” or preeminent expert on the United States. Urbane and fluent in English, Arbatov was the face of the Soviet Union on American television, appearing on shows like NBC’s Today to attack U.S. foreign policy, label Americans as “cowboys,” and belittle Ronald Reagan as a B-movie actor and right-wing extremist. (Reagan shot back: “They weren’t all B-movies.”) Behind the scenes, however, Arbatov was a reformer who nudged Moscow toward détente with the United States and became part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s brain trust, cultivating, as he put it, “oases of open thinking.”
Arbatov stood on a bridge between the Cold War superpowers. A Soviet Amerikanist. A Communist TV pundit. A friend of both Brezhnev and Billy Graham. From this uncommon position, Arbatov was able to look both east and west. He could see how the United States and the Soviet Union had grown strangely interdependent. Each superpower needed the other’s enmity to rally their nation together, or even to know who they really were. As Don DeLillo wrote in Underworld, set during the Cold War: “It’s not enough to hate your enemy. You have to understand how the two of you bring each other to deep completion.”
When the Cold War ended, the United States was the clear victor. In 1989, the composer Leonard Bernstein celebrated the opening of the Berlin Wall with a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, its themes of universal amity resonating around the globe. Arbatov, however, gave a stark warning to an American audience: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you.”
What did that mean? Did Moscow have a horrifying new weapon?
“We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”
Arbatov explained: “It’s historical, it’s human, you have to have an enemy. So much was built out of this role of the enemy. Your foreign policy, quite a bit of your economy, even your feelings about your country. To have a really good empire, you have to have a really evil empire.” But now the Soviet foe was gone.
“I cannot imagine that we will play this game again,” Arbatov said, “and without us you cannot play it either.”
As Arbatov predicted, when the Soviet Union left the stage in the 1990s, the United States began to fracture. American identity started to weaken. Republicans and Democrats coalesced into Red America and Blue America. The United States began to feel more like a defeated country than a victor. Trump would eventually borrow words from Stalin to describe his domestic rivals: Enemies of the People.
The Soviets had discovered a strategy that would allow them to sow discord among Americans and turn Washington against its closest allies. All Moscow had to do was lose the Cold War and disappear.
“It’s not enough to hate your enemy. You have to understand how the two of you bring each other to deep completion.”
In 1754, Benjamin Franklin published the first political cartoon in a newspaper in North America. He pictured the colonies as a snake, with its head as New England and its tail as South Carolina. The snake was cut into pieces and needed to meld itself together in the face of threats from the French and Native Americans: “Join, or Die.” When the American Patriots faced the British Empire, Franklin’s serpent went viral, as we now say, with endless reprints across the colonies.
America has long needed an adversary to remain united. That is, having an us has long required a them. And not just any opponent will do. America needs a great enemy or a truly existential threat, like the British Empire in the 1770s, the Confederacy in the Civil War, Imperial Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, or, most recently, the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The rise and fall of America’s great enemies has spurred periods of unity and progress and, in turn, eras of discord and reaction.
That countries need an enemy for domestic unity isn’t a new idea. Rome’s first great historian, Sallust, witnessed the Roman Republic’s collapse into civil war. The reason for internal discord, Sallust said, was that Rome had defeated its adversary Carthage. As long as the North African peril loomed, and Hannibal and his elephants stalked the Italian peninsula, Roman citizens put their differences aside. But after Rome burned Carthage to the ground in 146 BCE, Romans turned on each other. “When the minds of the people were relieved of that dread,” Sallust wrote, “wantonness and arrogance naturally arose.”
As a result, “the peace for which they had longed in time of adversity, after they had gained it proved to be more cruel and bitter than adversity itself. … the community was split into two parties, and between these the state was torn to pieces.”
Philosophers have long contended that external danger can bring diverse societies together—and, equally, that the lack of an enemy can drive them apart. “The cause of the disunion of republics is usually idleness and peace,” Machiavelli wrote. “The cause of union is fear and war.”
One reason is human psychology: The brain likely evolved to fixate on possible danger. Research in neuroscience shows that our unconscious mind is constantly on the lookout for peril. For instance, when people are shown threatening images so quickly that they can’t be consciously recognized (in hundredths of a second), the amygdala (the brain’s “threat center”) has an intense response. Danger can also rally people together into in-groups, or friends, and out-groups, or foes, hardening a one-for-all mindset. The biochemical compound oxytocin, for example, causes both intense feelings of trust toward insiders and intense feelings of enmity toward outsiders.
In the history of the United States, a powerful enemy may be particularly important in forging unity. Americans tend not to understand their identity based on an ancient heritage, religion, or language, but rather on a founding creed defined by liberty, equality, and individual rights. Yet a set of abstract ideas can only do so much to bond an enormous country populated by hundreds of millions of immigrants and their descendants. A great foe can make these ideas feel more meaningful and even worth dying for. In turn, wartime mobilization will socialize Americans with common training and experiences. The American collective memory celebrates the heroic contest with holidays, parades, and fireworks until the glorious tale is woven into the national tapestry.
Americans tend not to understand their identity based on an ancient heritage, religion, or language, but rather on a founding creed defined by liberty, equality, and individual rights. Yet a set of abstract ideas can only do so much to bond an enormous country populated by hundreds of millions of immigrants and their descendants.
For more than two centuries, the emergence of a great enemy inspired Americans to pull together and fight with a furious energy that left the nation, and the world, transformed. In the 1860s, the Union responded to the Confederate peril with a spirit of unity, or as Woodrow Wilson would later put it, “the creation in this country of what had never existed before—a national consciousness.” A half-century later, in 1917, the United States entered World War I, and many Americans were caught up in the crusading idealism of the military campaign, as The Nation described a “rebirth of American patriotism.”
In the 1940s, three great enemies arose in quick succession—Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union—prompting the strongest period of bipartisan cooperation in U.S. history. Despite high casualties, public support for World War II was resilient throughout the struggle. During the 1950s, Republicans and Democrats forged the “Cold War consensus” over the need to fight a global struggle against communism. This was an era of popular trust in the establishment, as voters chose presidents with vast governing experience in Washington and military know-how, such as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. The titanic geopolitical conflicts of the era also sharpened Americans’ sense of what they stood for. The Soviet Union was a foil from central casting: the political, ideological, cultural, and religious antithesis of the United States.
The struggle against great enemies hasn’t just helped unify Americans; it’s also helped drive many of the country’s proudest progressive achievements. Those on the left often see the drivers of national reform as grassroots activism and heroic leadership: Martin Luther King Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery and Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, the left often associates war with fascism, militarism, and chest-thumping chauvinism. Of course, they’re right to highlight the price of war. In the course of a campaign against a great enemy, American leaders may trammel the rights of Americans associated with the adversary, like Japanese-Americans in World War II or suspected communists in the McCarthy era.
But while Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. are critical to the story of American reform, so too are the Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The left may tend to embrace big government and despise war, but the big government they support is often deeply linked to the war they oppose.
Powerful foes tend to trigger a shift in American thinking from me to we—to a greater concern with the common good. Historically, the threat of a great enemy has led to a dynamic and activist government that is prepared to raise taxes, regulate the economy, and mobilize the full resources of the citizenry—including women and minorities. To defeat the adversary, American conservatives have been willing to support big government and even consider the radical transformation of society.
The Soviet Union was a foil from central casting: the political, ideological, cultural, and religious antithesis of the United States.
Many of the most important progressive reforms in the United States are concentrated in the brief eras of greatest peril. The Revolutionary War inspired the idea that “all men are created equal.” The Civil War led to the emancipation of slaves and a massive expansion of federal activism on everything from the transcontinental railroad to the creation of land-grant universities. U.S. entry into World War I was a major impetus for women’s suffrage and inspired Wilson to look outward and seek an end to war through the League of Nations.
The triple threat from Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union in the 1940s was a powerful catalyst for reform. The federal government raised taxes (the top rate stayed above 90 percent into the 1960s), regulated the economy, and distributed veterans’ benefits, all of which sharply reduced disparities of income. Unions thrived in wartime and worked in partnership with the federal government. In the 1950s, Congress passed the first federal aid for education to compete with Soviet science. The Cold War was a critical boost for civil rights and a direct cause of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. The Justice Department urged the Court to decide against segregation solely because of foreign threat: “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” The national emergency also led Washington to cast aside isolationism and create international organizations such as the United Nations, to build alliances such as NATO, and to pursue far-sighted projects such as the Marshall Plan.
In many ways, fighting great enemies made America: The war against Britain made a republic; the war against the Confederacy made a nation; and the war against Imperial Germany made a democracy. The struggle against the Nazis, the Japanese Empire, and the Soviets made a Great Society.
But what happened when the enemy was vanquished? Would Americans still join if they couldn’t die?
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln, just 28 years old, gave the Lyceum Address. Across the United States, Lincoln saw his country coming apart, with social division, lawlessness, and mob rule. His explanation was peace and security. The American Founders’ struggle against Britain had channeled the United States’ energies outward. “The deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation.” America was now safe from harm with a rapidly growing population and economy. Unfortunately, it was also safe to start tearing itself to pieces. “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The Union would endure a series of tremors, and finally, in 1861, almost founder in a great cataclysm. The United States could survive war. But it could barely survive peace.
Over and again in U.S. history, peacetime has meant political division and reaction, as Americans turned their enmities against each other. People often assume that the end of war means a peace dividend, or a shift in resources from the military to social programs. But the peace dividend usually goes to rich investors: Taxes and regulation are cut, inequality rises, the country becomes a playground for elites, and the journey toward racial justice stalls. Triumph in war also tends to see the United States turning inward and retreating from global engagement.
Over and again in U.S. history, peacetime has meant political division and reaction, as Americans turned their enmities against each other.
The end of the Civil War triggered an era of division and reaction in the late nineteenth century, with the rise of radical and anti-establishment voices, such as the Populists, socialists, and anarchists, and the worst labor violence of any industrializing country. Lower taxes granted the rich a new birth of freedom in the Gilded Age. Washington deployed troops in the South to aid the former slaves, but northerners had no stomach for the fight; the troops were withdrawn, and a new system of apartheid quickly emerged.
Similarly, in 1918, the United States defeated Imperial Germany, but peacetime America was riven by savage inequality and social division. A wave of lynching in the “bloody summer” of 1919, and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, crushed the nascent civil rights movement. In 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia was the most violent struggle in American labor history. Meanwhile, the “Red Hunt,” a wave of anti-radical hysteria, targeted political activists. Despite winning the Great War, Americans recalled the conflict as a terrible mistake. Gertrude Stein said hauntingly to Ernest Hemingway, “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” Americans focused on domestic issues and rejected Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations.
Is reform possible in peacetime America? Yes, but it’s tough. Racism, sexism, and inequality are all deeply entrenched in the United States. In the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, the country had no great enemy, yet reformers managed to introduce the income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment), governance reform (as in the direct election of senators with the Seventeenth Amendment), and new regulatory agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission—and pressed for the vote for women.
But Progressive leaders were mainly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and they achieved few gains for African-Americans. Wilson was a Progressive president and an overt white supremacist. Wealth disparities remained extreme. New federal agencies were often weak and under-resourced. The Supreme Court struck down laws regulating child labor. Women’s suffrage was only achieved after the struggle against Imperial Germany.
During the 1930s, reformers made another push for change in peacetime. The New Deal saw a range of important initiatives, such as Social Security. But the New Deal was the only time in American history that state power expanded dramatically without a great enemy—and it took the Great Depression. The New Deal didn’t solve the problem of mass unemployment (which was stuck at 18 percent in 1938), and Roosevelt’s project was extremely vulnerable to a conservative backlash. The New Deal might easily have unraveled if Nazi Panzers hadn’t swept into France, Japanese Zeros hadn’t descended on Pearl Harbor, and the United States hadn’t entered World War II—which spurred the federal government to grow in size by a factor of ten.
Lincoln’s prophecy that peace meant disunity would reemerge with tremendous resonance more than a century later: What would happen when the shadow of peril in the Cold War passed?
The New Deal might easily have unraveled if Nazi Panzers hadn’t swept into France, Japanese Zeros hadn’t descended on Pearl Harbor, and the United States hadn’t entered World War II—which spurred the federal government to grow in size by a factor of ten.
The wave of gentrification in American real estate has reached the Kansas prairie. A former government facility north of Wichita has been converted into condos, with a movie theater, swimming pool, and windows showing the rolling farmland. Unusually, however, the walls are nine feet thick, and the “windows” in the apartment are LED screens that show a live video stream of the prairie, far above your head. Survival condos, housed in a former underground nuclear missile silo, are all the rage among super-rich survivalists, who fear that American society is on the brink of disintegration. These people aren’t focused on bringing America back together; they’re booking their escape pods. Bastions of national defense have become arks for the wealthy.
What caused the fraying of America, the elite opt-out from social responsibility, the extraordinary concentration of wealth in the United States, and the hardening right-wing turn in U.S. politics? People have blamed everything from neoliberal ideology to globalization to robots. But a big part of the story lies with the U.S. triumph in the Cold War.
The pivot to peace—as well as disunity and reaction—began in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cold War stabilized. In the era of détente, tempers cooled as the United States and the Soviet Union cut a series of arms-control deals, and Washington recognized communist China. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe democratized, and the U.S.S.R. collapsed. America hadn’t been this safe since the 1920s.
But as Georgi Arbatov warned, the departure of America’s nemesis caused eroding identity, discord in the old familiar places—race, class, immigration—weakening international alliances, and an era of hubristic and failed wars. It was fertile soil for the emergence of a populist outsider like Trump, who promised to restore a lost era and “make America great again.”
As Sallust observed of the citizens of the Roman republic, during the Cold War, Americans longed for peace, but once achieved, the peace felt cruel and bitter.
When the U.S.S.R. dissipated in the 1990s, Americans started turning on each other. It was a time of slash-and-burn politics, as partisanship reached record levels. The first post-Cold War president, Bill Clinton, was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, escaping conviction in the Senate. In time, liberals clustered in cities and conservatives bunched together in suburbs and rural areas, with both tribes electing more ideologically extreme representatives. Since the Cold War ended (with a brief exception after 9/11), most Americans have said the country is divided, and following Trump’s election, this number reached a record high of 77 percent.
Meanwhile, Americans started to look at the system that delivered victory in the Cold War with disdain. Confidence in national institutions fell to historical lows, and 81 percent of the public said the federal government was corrupt. “I want to bring everything crashing down,” said the populist provocateur Steve Bannon, “and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Dissident movements arose, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, from the Tea Party to the alt-right—all in revolt against the system. Increasingly, being an outsider was the ticket to success in presidential elections. After 1992, the only president who had any experience in Washington before taking the oath of office was Barack Obama—and he had spent just two years in the Senate.
As Sallust observed of the citizens of the Roman republic, during the Cold War, Americans longed for peace, but once achieved, the peace felt cruel and bitter.
Americans endured a gathering identity crisis. The novelist John Updike created the character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as an American Everyman. “I miss it,” said Rabbit. “The Cold War. It gave you a reason to get up in the morning.” In 2017, a survey found that seven-in-ten Americans felt the country was losing its identity. Today, many on the left see America as profoundly, perhaps fatally, crippled by racism and inequality. In 2019, fewer than one-in-four Democrats said they were “extremely proud” to be American, part of a two-decade-long slide in confidence. Meanwhile, many on the right fear that liberals are set on replacing America’s identity as a Christian society based on individual freedom, with mass immigration, socialism, and wokeness.
As a rule, when Americans lose their identity, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything. Since 2016, many Republicans have abandoned their traditional backing for strong alliances, free trade, and opposition to Russia, in favor of loyalty to Trump. Conspiracies have meanwhile run riot, like trutherism, birtherism, and QAnon. We might think that great threats produce paranoia, such as the fear of “reds under the bed.” But danger can also force people to see things as they really are. George Orwell said, “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
But what if there’s no battlefield?
During the 1970s, as Cold War tensions eased, movement conservatism emerged, and the narrative evolved from Roosevelt to Reagan—from the idea that government is the solution to the idea that government is the problem. The journalist Tom Wolfe called the 1970s the “me decade,” or an era of greed and narcissism. Milton Friedman was the most influential economist of the age and claimed that profit seeking was the only appropriate goal of corporations. In 1996, Bill Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” American society became dramatically less equal and the super-rich enjoyed no end of excess. The top income-tax rate plummeted from 91 percent in 1963 to 70 percent in 1973, to 50 percent in 1983, to 39.6 percent in 1993, to 35 percent in 2003. Union membership went into free fall. Domestic spending shifted from welfare to police and prisons—targeting the enemy within.
Meanwhile, after the Cold War ended, U.S. enthusiasm for upholding the global order of alliances and institutions began to weaken. Bill Clinton said, “Foreign policy is not what I came here to do.” The 9/11 attacks led to a new era of U.S. unilateralism, including the invasion of Iraq without UN Security Council approval. Obama praised American partners but also dramatically expanded the use of drone strikes and criticized allied “free-riding” during the 2011 intervention in Libya. Trump believed that allies took advantage of the U.S. and harshly criticized institutions like NATO and the EU.
“The Cold War. It gave you a reason to get up in the morning.”
So, what about 9/11? Why didn’t the threat from al-Qaeda spur American unity and progress?
It seemed for a time as if the United States faced a new great enemy that might rally the nation together. On the evening of September 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sang “God Bless America.” George W. Bush’s approval ratings soared. But the mood didn’t last, Bush’s approval ratings fell back to earth, and American unity evaporated over the war in Iraq.
The reason the threat from al-Qaeda didn’t spur American unity and progress is that the jihadist group is too weak to be a great enemy. Al-Qaeda could hijack a plane; the Soviets built thousands of planes. Al-Qaeda has a tiny band of fighters; the U.S.S.R. had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. In the decade after 9/11, more people in the United States died of peanut allergies than of terrorism. There was no U.S. national mobilization or draft similar to the 1940s. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were financed by deficit spending, not taxes. Many Americans continued their daily lives as if there was no conflict happening at all.
Ironically, America’s victory in the Cold War gave an opening to its former enemy. The Soviet Union had long tried to divide American society—for example, by spreading rumors that the right-wing John Birch Society was planning to assassinate black leaders. But Moscow’s efforts at psychological warfare fell flat because the Soviet Union was, in fact, too strong. The U.S.S.R.’s status as a great enemy only served to unite Americans.
Losing the Cold War crippled Moscow’s power, but it also allowed Russia to gain more sway over U.S. politics. Russia’s weakness is, paradoxically, its strength. Without a mighty foe in the form of the Soviet Union, Americans’ national bonds weakened and Moscow was able to drive wedges into U.S. society. In 2016, Moscow hacked the Democratic Party’s email system and spread fake news on U.S. social media—exploiting American distrust, partisan divisions, and appetites for conspiracy theories—to help Trump win. When Russian hacking was revealed, many Republicans were content to see it as an attack on them, the Democrats, not on us, the Americans. After Trump was elected, the number of Republicans who saw Russia as “friendly” or as an “ally” nearly doubled.
When Winston Churchill heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was deeply relieved. Even though Japan had damaged or destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and was poised to overrun British colonies in East Asia, Churchill knew what American entry into World War II meant. He recalled something he had been told decades earlier, about U.S. involvement in World War I: The United States is a mighty boiler, and “once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Churchill could sleep soundly that night: “So we had won after all.”
In the decade after 9/11, more people in the United States died of peanut allergies than of terrorism. There was no U.S. national mobilization or draft similar to the 1940s. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were financed by deficit spending, not taxes. Many Americans continued their daily lives as if there was no conflict happening at all.
Once roused to action, the United States is capable of not only defeating a great enemy—but also harnessing its power to tackle acute domestic problems. Can America learn to do the latter without the former?
The United States struggles to solve its deepest internal issues in peacetime. It’s just too big, too new, and too diverse. Racism, sexism, and other barriers to change are deeply embedded. In 1860, slavery was more entrenched in the United States than it had ever been. In the early twentieth century, the women’s vote was still over the horizon. In the 1930s, Roosevelt couldn’t solve mass unemployment, and he didn’t even try to overthrow Jim Crow, a citadel of racism.
Time and again, the fight against a great enemy has resolved major crises by rallying Americans together and accelerating reform. It took the Civil War to end slavery. It took the Great War to finally bring women’s suffrage. It took World War II and the early Cold War to produce full employment and the civil-rights era. The great enemy has functioned as a kind of deus ex machina for the United States, an external force that helps Americans to crack problems they can’t figure out themselves. But in turn, victory can set the scene for the next crisis because the disappearance of the American nemesis creates new divisions at home.
The problem is one that everyone can understand: Fighting great enemies comes at a terrible price. Three-quarters of a million Americans died in the Civil War alone. The United States resolves its deepest problems in the costliest way imaginable. America’s dependence on battling great enemies to address injustice and other issues at home is a national tragedy.
The role of danger and war in national life is certainly not unique to the United States. Heraclitus wrote in the fifth century BCE: “War is the father of all and king of all.” But the impact of threat is nevertheless exceptional in America. For one thing, U.S. national identity is founded on abstract ideas and is unusually fragile—and great enemies are critical in sharpening the meaning of America. The United States also has a strong anti-statist tradition, making national crusades vital for getting conservatives, in particular, to back government activism.
The role of enemies in rallying Americans can’t simply be wished away—but can it be ameliorated or overcome? U.S. political leaders can certainly try to find better ways to bring Americans together and unhitch unity and progress from geopolitical conflict. Today, there is nothing more vital for Americans to coalesce against than the clear and present danger of global warming. Alas, human psychology means that all people, including Americans, are much more sensitive to threats with a human face than to environmental challenges like climate change. Even the peril of Covid-19 couldn’t override America’s internal divisions.
But there is a profound challenge to America with a human face: China. In the next two decades, Beijing is on track to overtake the United States economically and even outmatch U.S. military spending. So, the Biden administration faces a fundamental dilemma: Does it “play the China card,” or emphasize the challenge from Beijing? This move could indulge the worst tendencies in American life and turn a competitor into the Other—risking a new cold war, or even a devastating hot war, as well as socially corrosive antipathy toward Chinese people and Chinese-Americans at home. At the same time, however, checking a rising, autocratic, and aggressive power makes sense on its merits. The China card is the only major source of bipartisan consensus in Washington and can mobilize conservatives around progressive initiatives, such as investments in research and development in artificial intelligence and green energy.
It will take extremely skillful leadership over the coming years to thread this needle and rally Americans around a vision of healthy competition with China—and, having mastered the art of defeating great enemies, to begin mastering the art of living together in peace.